bob-clarkBob Clark was a big man, who took big steps, because he had a big heart. He was born in 1937, in Kansas City. Grandpa, Grandma, and Dad moved around quite a bit in the early years as Grandpa worked for IBM. Dad grew up in Kansas City, Overland Park, Topeka, and Manhattan, KS. He was bright, industrious, with an active curiosity. Even though, by contemporary standards, he grew up in modest circumstances, he considered himself middle class and doesn’t seem to have lacked the basics—though they didn’t always have indoor plumbing until after WWII.

Big Steps

Dad was 6′ 2″ and he took big steps. As a boy it was always a challenge for me to keep up. I recall parking about a mile from Memorial Stadium in Lincoln and walking to a game, in 1971, against a hapless Utah State team. Nebraska won 42–6 en route to their second consecutive national championship. As we walked I got a side ache and asked Dad to slow down. He seemed genuinely puzzled. He couldn’t understand why a healthy 10-year old boy couldn’t keep up. He didn’t seem to realize that his legs were a lot longer than mine, literally and metaphorically.

He was active in school groups, the United Lutheran Church (where he memorized Luther’s Small Catechism), DeMolay (the youth auxiliary of the Masonic Lodge), and sports (football and wrestling). He worked his way through school with summer jobs and paper routes. As a 9th grader, however, he became disenchanted with DeMolay (and the lodge) when an African-American friend was not allowed to be initiated because of his race. In High School and College, he worked for the YMCA and accidentally integrated the Topeka YMCA, in the summer of 1958, four years after Brown v Board. It was over a 100 degrees that day and he was driving a bus full of hot, tired boys from the Topeka YMCA and from the Carver Branch. The latter didn’t have a pool so Dad and the other counselors took the boys swimming at their branch. The next day Dad was called to the director’s office where the director said that Dad had just succeeded in integrating the Topeka YMCA. The board had been struggling for years to find a way to integrate the YMCA and Dad just did it. In the same period, back at college, Dad was involved in the early phase of the civil rights movement at what is today the University of Northern Colorado (Greeley). The school’s athletic teams were touring the south but the African-American athletes weren’t allowed to go because the teams they were playing wouldn’t participate if the UNC team was integrated and the African-American students couldn’t eat or room with the white students. Dad helped to organize a movement to push the teams to cancel the trip. He also led a campaign to break down the color barrier in Greely, according to which local landlords refused to rent to and local restaurants refused to serve minorities. Later, Dad worked on behalf of the mentally ill and developmentally disabled (then referred to as the mentally retarded) in Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska. In 1968 he helped expose the chronic abuse of the developmentally disabled at the Beatrice State Home and to bring about significant changes in the way human services are delivered in Nebraska.

He was a Humphrey Democrat who supported the Cold War, loved America, and watched war movies. He tried to enlist but the military would take him because of his flat feet and allergies. He waged war nevertheless. By his own admission he tread the line of the “Little Hatch Act” forbidding political activities by state employees in Kansas. He campaigned for candidates who supported human services in Omaha and we were catechized on local and national politics at the dinner table and over the Sunday paper. Eventually I realized that not everyone’s dad met with legislators, governors, and senators but mine did. Our politics went in different directions but he was a warrior to the end even if he wasn’t always able to tell friend from foe.

Big Heart

Dad took big steps because he had a big heart. He felt the suffering of others acutely. Looking back through the newspaper clippings and memos (some of them from his opponents), it’s clear that sometimes he led with his heart. He was particularly sensitive about the plight of those who were disadvantaged through no fault of their own. His own upbringing wasn’t particularly enlightened in this regard. My grandfather was, in many respects, a good man but he was a man of his time and place and he thought he knew where “those people” belonged: in their place. I think he matured in his later years but Dad had to learn about the universality of the image of God on his own, through experience. He stumbled into what was then called the “Negro” section of town by accident as a boy a couple of times and found help when he was lost. His experience taught him that folk are the essentially the same despite their cultural and racial differences. His religious upbringing also made him sensitive to the needs of others.

Growing up in Dad’s house meant going out on “Honey Sunday” every November 4 to raise funds for the Association for Retarded Citizens. It meant that, in some years, on Halloween, we collected for UNICEF rather than for ourselves. I know we grumbled. It was always cold on Honey Sunday. Always. I remember being thankful that our driver kept the car running with the heat going. I’m sure we grumbled about not collecting candy but mainly we just assumed that was the way it was supposed to be because Dad said that’s what we were going to do.

Big Man

Things were quite tumultuous in our house in from the late 60s through the early 80s but we never questioned whether Dad would be there. He just was. Once, in the 70s we had a family discussion about how we viewed one another (in the 70s we did a lot of talking about feelings) and the one thing on which we all agreed was that Dad was the rock of the family. He seemed genuinely surprised. He was a big man who didn’t seem to know how big he was.

At the end, the job, the battles, and the years took their toll but to me he will always be that big, tall, handsome fellow in the sharp-looking suit catching a plane (back when it was just a little glamorous), or driving to Kansas—steering with his knees, or disarming a drunk neighbor before he hurt someone. Dad was a man. He just did what he knew to be right and paid little regard to the consequences, which, upon reflection, is a great contradiction since Dad was nothing if not organized. He planned everything. Once he thought about something and figured out the best way to do it, he expected the rest of us to fall in line. There is only one way to take out the trash. Truth is that he was usually right. When it came, however, to principle, to the truth, he was relentless and it cost him. Dad stood up for those who couldn’t stand for themselves and he was impatient with everyone who didn’t do the same.

There is something of a crisis over masculinity in our culture. Boys are marginalized and medicated. Grown men wear footie pajamas and allow themselves to be photographed in them, for publicity, without embarrassment. Boys with absentee fathers cast about for role models. Never for single day of my conscious life have I doubted what a man looks like. He looks like Dad. I often ask myself what Dad would do. I know the answer. Sometimes I do the opposite but I know.

He had a big faith too even didn’t talk much about it. Chalk it up to Midwestern Lutheran reluctance. He did believe, however, and he lived his life for his neighbors because of what Christ did for us sinners. In his Small Catechism, Luther summarized Dad’s theology this way:

I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won [delivered] me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, in order that I may be [wholly] His own, and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.

Dad died on January 8, 2014. That big man, with the big heart, who took such very big steps, isn’t there any more. There’s a big hole in our lives.

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